By Samanthat M. McCall

Five years ago, Lisa Brooten taught English in one of the many Burmese refugee camps that dot Thailand’s western border. There, the Ohio University graduate student and her husband lived and worked for three years with a people whose homeland had been ripped away by one of the world’s most infamous military dictatorships.

Lisa Brooten speaks at a Free Burma Coalition rally last year on campus.
Photo: Tom McCall
The stories of rape, forced labor and torture shared by her students, their families and friends were ingrained in her conscience. Once home, she became committed to helping the Burmese people restore independence to their troubled country.

Last year, she founded and served as coordinator of Ohio University’s Athens campus chapter of the Free Burma Coalition, a nationwide grassroots organization. While the local group’s members numbered just 10 to 15, most were active and committed, says Brooten, who is now working on her doctorate in international telecommunications at OU. The group’s activities, aimed at increasing campus awareness of Burmese oppression and other human rights violations around the world, included sponsoring speakers, fund raisers, boycotts against businesses with ties to Burma, letter-writing campaigns, a panel discussion on human rights and a rally.

“Now there’s a general awareness here that the country even exists,” Brooten says. “I can see students are more interested in the topic as well as professors mentioning it more.”

Brooten’s group is among about a dozen considered politically active on a campus that some might argue has gone into political withdrawal. That reputation, here and on campuses nationwide, grew from the view that students from the late 1970s into the early ’90s were apathetic and self-indulgent.

Ohio University was relatively calm during those years, especially compared to the raucous 1960s and early ’70s that saw demonstrations against the Vietnam War, racial discrimination and nuclear weapons. Even then, compared to other universities around the state — most notably Kent State — Ohio University was considered more of a party school than a politically active one, says Columbus author Sandra Gurvis, who is writing a book titled Where Have All The Protesters Gone?

Ohio University still hasn’t found a spot on Mother Jones magazine’s list of the Top Ten Activist Campuses. But that doesn’t mean activism doesn’t exist in Athens.

“OU is not a screaming campus, but that’s not to say it’s dead,” Brooten says. “Activism happens here and there and in between the cracks.”

Student involvement on campus appears to be growing, and it’s manifesting itself in new ways. Administrators say today’s student body is by far the most active in 25 years.

“In the ’70s, students might join a march or a protest, but that was the extent of their activism,” says Michael Sostarich, MFA ’71, associate vice president for student affairs. “Now, we have some highly involved students who are much more active and committed than students in the past.”

From the Buckeye Forest Council to Students for Reproductive Choice to the Native American Awareness Coalition, groups are voicing concern and showing empathy for causes. Many believe the large, noisy protests of the ’60s have given way to these smaller, quieter and sometimes even anonymous efforts. In many cases, students are showing greater sensitivity to the local community and a better understanding of the university administration.

“This has changed from the ’60s and ’70s in that it is much more issue-focused,” says Terry Hogan (BSC ’77, MA ’83, PHD ’92), associate dean of students and director of the campus’ Community Service Program. “Rather than a wholesale revolution against anything establishment, students engage in persuasion strategies designed to impact their peers, the community of Athens and the university on a particular issue.”

Joel Rudy, dean of students and vice president for student affairs, agrees. “I personally believe our students are better informed, more involved and more responsible, so their activism today is better received and supported,” Rudy says.

There are a number of reasons for this evolution, observers say. They point to a school administration that is more open to student feedback and participation, a revolution in how students communicate because of the Internet, and the fact that issues facing students today are much different than those of the past. Finding a job, they say, takes precedence over taking a stand.

Thirty years ago, students faced the possibility of being drafted into an unpopular war where they could be killed without having the right to vote. Within five years’ time, President John F. Kennedy, U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were assassinated.

“There was no question in our minds then that we could make a difference. After all, we did stop a war,” says Elizabeth Collins, an Ohio University associate professor of philosophy who participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations and marched for equal rights while a student at the University of California-Berkeley in the 1960s.

At Ohio University, one of the most obvious exceptions to the way activism has changed is Campus Greens, an environmental group formed in 1991. Using 1960s-like methods bolstered by the technology and marketing strategies of the ’90s, co-founder Chad Kister and his peers have organized several highly visible protests.

Kister, BSJ ’93, a graduate student in environmental studies, counts among the group’s successes the establishment of a university recycling program and a pending lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service seeking to halt logging in nearby Wayne National Forest. The lawsuit was filed by the Sierra Club and endorsed by Campus Greens.

“This shows that if students act strongly enough, they can make a difference,” Kister says. “That lawsuit could have a big impact on national forest policy, and we’d like to see the Forest Service continue to shift away from logging and more towards recreation and wilderness creation.”

Most recently, the Campus Greens group garnered local and state media attention for its rallies in support of saving Dysart Woods, a university-owned forest in Belmont County that’s being threatened by a nearby mining project (see related story).

The environment also is a cause people can support anonymously through what Brooten calls “little everyday things.” With the same genuine intention of making a difference in the world, students are quietly and consistently riding their bicycles instead of driving cars, taking their own bags to the store, buying organic produce, recycling, and boycotting products made in countries whose policies they consider unjust.

Rudy, who has watched student activism ebb and flow on the Athens campus for 22 years, says the World Wide Web has revolutionized the way students communicate and take stands.

“Before, students had to have massive rallies and demonstrations in order to get media attention big enough to hit the networks for the 6 o’clock news,” Rudy says. “Now they can put out their newsletter or ‘manifestos’ and have them distributed around the globe (on the Internet) within minutes.”

For a growing number of students, including Stacie Linn, activism means volunteering.

“My college experience would be nonexistent if I hadn’t volunteered. I’m not sure what I’d have done or who I’d even be if I didn’t volunteer,” says Linn, a senior majoring in social work.

President of OU’s 147-member chapter of the coed service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega, Linn has hammered nails for Habitat for Humanity, planted flowers at the Visitors’ Center, and conducted blood drives for the American Red Cross. And that’s just a sampling. “I think a lot of people feel like they can’t make a difference, so why bother? But that’s not true,” Linn says. “Go sit in a nursing home with an old person for 15 minutes and see if that doesn’t make a difference.”

Linn’s method of expressing her concern and acknowledging the need for change is by far the most popular on campus today, students and administrators say, and interest is only growing. But that’s not to say volunteerism and activism are mutually exclusive. For example, the Buckeye Forest Council, a student group interested in how public forests are managed, falls primarily in the activist category. Yet members also can be found repairing park trails damaged by off-road vehicles.

“The service movement reflects a growing student interest in having a direct and tangible impact on a real problem,” says Hogan, whose office is tied in with most volunteer projects on campus. “Students are very interested in tutoring children, for example, or planting trees or engaging in other activities where they can have some level of confidence that their efforts are meaningful and are truly contributing to the resolution of a problem.” An estimated 1,700 students — almost 10 percent of the student body — volunteer for one or more of the 65 community service agencies in Athens County. And within the past decade, interest in volunteerism has soared 17 percent, according to results of the ACT Interest Inventory taken by students entering Ohio University. Accordingly, new student groups have popped up to offer opportunities in volunteerism. Just in the past two years, four new service-oriented groups formed: AppalAction (the Appalachian Student Service Corps); SCALE (Student Coalition for Action in Literacy Education); RestoreCorps, an environmental group; and CORPS for Youth, which is developing an adopt-a-school program.

Gaining leadership and organizational skills and experiencing personal growth are among the long-term benefits students derive from volunteering. Sometimes, as it did for Marquita Flowers, volunteering gives students a career direction.

Flowers, 24, who graduated this fall with a degree in health administration, discovered the Center for Community Service as a sophomore through a work-study job. There, she learned of several Athens County service organizations and their missions. The experience prompted her to take a year off school to work full time at the center as an AmeriCorps volunteer. Her senior year, Flowers was the center’s volunteer mobilization coordinator.

AmeriCorps is a national service concept that offers individuals a chance to earn money for college or to repay college loans while doing a year or two of community service. Ohio University became involved in AmeriCorps three years ago and the Center for Community Service is the lead AmeriCorps agency in the region. “That experience opened up a whole new world for me, and this is where I want to focus my career now,” says Flowers, who planned to look for a full-time job with a non-profit organization when her internship with the Cincinnati Health Department ended this fall. “I was exposed to life beyond Court Street, which is unfortunately what so many college students only see while they’re in Athens.”

About 300 full-time and student employees at OU spent a day in early September working on community service projects such as this Habitat for Humanity house in an effort sponsored by the Division of Student Affairs.
Photo: Bill Graham
Volunteerism is becoming contagious on campus, from classrooms to Greek organizations. For two weeks before Homecoming, about 3,000 fraternity and sorority members participated in such projects as playing bingo with senior citizens, walking dogs at the local animal shelter, hammering nails at a Habitat for Humanity house and pouring a new basketball court for Grace Academy in Athens. Three hundred full-time and student employees in the Division of Student Affairs blanketed the Athens area for one day in early September, working on community projects. The Department of Residence Life encourages students living in residence halls to work together on volunteer projects throughout the year.

The concept of using a community or public service experience to enhance learning is becoming more popular, too. Five years ago, no classes officially reported using community service as part of the curriculum. Today, 37 Athens and regional campus faculty are officially enrolled in service-learning projects as part of a campuswide initiative to incorporate a service component into courses.

And over school breaks, United Campus Ministry in Athens sponsors volunteer work trips. During one such two-week trip this winter break to Puerto Rico, students will volunteer in hospitals, schools and homes. Last spring, Ohio University students helped rebuild a burned-out church in South Carolina.

Student Senate represents another avenue for student expression on campus. Instead of fighting university officials head-on, the senate has worked in recent years to establish a good relationship with the administration.

Administration officials agree that last year’s senate, under President Josh Woolley’s leadership, was one of the strongest and most active in the group’s history. Both the number of students involved and their commitment have increased to the point that senate members now serve on university committees.

Woolley considers the most impressive accomplishment during his tenure to be creation of the new Center for Student Advocacy, which provides students with legal advice and support.

“There’s no way student activism and concern are dead on campus,” says the Philosophy Department’s Collins, who advises the OU Amnesty International chapter. “It’s usually found in student groups, and it will continue to be so long as students believe in peace, justice and equality. Their work is hard now, but we know they have the right hopes and dreams.”

Samantha M. McCall is an Athens-based freelancer and a regular contributer to the Columbus Dispatch.

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